Senate hearing urges diplomatic pressure in famine response

Children sharing a meal in Yemen. Photo: WFP / Marco Frattini

In a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing room lined with large printed photographs of starving children, experts discussed how the United States can help mitigate famine and near-famine crises affecting 20 million people across the globe. Washington can help meet current needs as well address underlying conflicts driving much of the food insecurity, they said.

The hearing focused on Yemen, one of four countries that the United Nations has described as facing famine-like conditions, along with South Sudan, Somalia and northern Nigeria. About 17 million Yemenis, or about 60 percent of the population, are food insecure, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

Food insecurity and an ongoing cholera epidemic are the direct consequence of the prolonged conflict in Yemen, said Matthew Nims, the acting director of USAID’s Office of Food for Peace. Conflict and instability are also driving the dire food security challenges in South Sudan and Nigeria, he said.

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Nims and other witnesses urged the U.S. to continue its support for the crises, none of which appears likely to end in the coming months. The four most-affected countries may also be just a tip of the iceberg of global food insecurity, witnesses warned. USAID’s Famine Early Warning System, FEWS NET, has identified other concerning areas, including in Ethiopia. Early this year, it warned that 81 million people across 45 countries will need emergency food assistance, Nims said.                                           

In fiscal year 2017, the U.S. has allocated more than $1.8 billion to the four most-affected countries, according to Nims. Those funds have supported emergency food and nutritional assistance, improved sanitation, medical care, health programs and civilian protection.

Some aid groups had previously told Devex they were concerned about the speed of the distribution of U.S. funds, and several Senators sought to speed delivery. Nims said that the $990 million approved by Congress as part of the 2017 fiscal year budget was apportioned to the Office of Food for Peace on June 20. The office is “on track to obligate that in a responsible way before the end of the fiscal year,” Nims said.

Still, money alone is unlikely to do more than meet immediate needs. Ending food insecurity will require stronger diplomatic pressure on the parties involved in conflict to allow aid to flow safely and freely and work to solve underlying problems, a number of aid experts testified Tuesday.

Yemen and Saudi Arabia

Yemen is perhaps the best example of a place where U.S. diplomatic pressure could help improve aid delivery and encourage conflict resolution, a number of those testifying said. The U.S. supports and has provided aid to a Saudi Arabia-led coalition seeking since 2015 to oust an alliance of rebels from the capital, Sana’a. The coalition currently controls Yemen’s air space and sea access.

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Senator Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana, who chairs the subcommittee on multilateral international development, multilateral institutions, and international economic, energy, and environmental policy, which convened the hearing, focused many of his questions on Saudi Arabia’s role in some of the existing access and distribution challenges in Yemen.

Saudi-led forces bombed the port of Hudaydah in 2015, destroying much of the dockside infrastructure and severely limiting the capacity to import goods including humanitarian aid. About 90 percent of Yemen’s food supply is imported, about 80 percent of which came through that port, Nims said.

A Saudi-led naval blockade has also limited the importation of humanitarian aid supplies and prevented the World Food Program from bringing in U.S.-purchased cranes that could help restore operations at the port and speed the aid distribution process, according to David Beasley, the executive director of WFP. If the cranes are allowed into the port it would improve the speed with which boats could offload their goods, including food and medical aid.

The Saudi-led humanitarian operations committee had initially granted permission to WFP to deliver the cranes, but the shipment was turned back in January. Saudi Arabia has raised concerns about arms shipments entering the country and said the port is unsafe. Riyadh has also claimed humanitarian aid is diverted from the port, so it does not make it to those in need.

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USAID and others have investigated claims of aid diversion but have not found evidence of foul play, according to Nims. WFP has said it would be safe to bring the cranes into the port, he said.

Last month, WFP wrote a letter to the Saudi government asking that it allow the cranes to be delivered. Beasley testified that he has personally reached out to the Saudi government as well to ask that the cranes be allowed. Thus far, he has not had a response.

“We’re not here to pick on anybody, but this is a conflict that innocent children are dying from, innocent people are suffering from and so we ask particularly those who reside and live in this area, the Gulf states, Saudi, to please step up and fund the humanitarian free for all, the consequences of the conflict,” Beasley said.

Young described the cranes as “ a tangible, a specific step that can be taken to save thousands or millions of lives by facilitating a more expeditious flow of humanitarian supplies.” He said impeding their import could violate customary international humanitarian rule 55, part of the Geneva Convention, mandating parties to conflict allow and facilitate civilian aid.

“I want to ensure the Saudis get all the public credit — or shame — they deserve, depending on their decision,” he said.

Beasley said that President Donald Trump should be asked to weigh in directly with Saudi Arabia.

Lessons and recommendations

The hearing was also designed to elicit past lessons that can guide the U.S. response to food insecurity. In addition to offering guidance on aid delivery, witnesses largely coalesced around the need for a diplomatic surge to address underlying conflicts.

Justin Forsyth, deputy executive director for partnerships at the United Nations Children’s Fund, urged policymakers to act early on food insecurity, as children particularly may die before a humanitarian emergency or famine is officially declared. Past experience has demonstrated the need for an integrated response that addresses not only nutrition but water, sanitation, health and education as well, he said.

Others echoed Forsyth’s calls for a response that focuses equally on developing resilience and meeting immediate needs. In Somalia for example, 70 percent of livestock have died, robbing much of the population of a livelihood. It will take five years to replenish stock, according to Dominik Stillhart, the director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross. The country needs both immediate aid and longer-term efforts to help Somalis build their livelihoods, he said.

Yet even the best aid response will be to little effect if access is impeded, as is the case in several crises today. Humanitarian aid must be accompanied by a diplomatic surge to help facilitate relief and bring an end to conflict, witnesses said.

“We really cannot humanitarian our way out of these conflicts. All of these, even Somalia, have serious man-made elements,” Nims said.

Stillhart urged congress to help launch a diplomatic surge and to ask the administration to exert U.S. influence and leverage to help change the behavior of warring parties.

“U.S. leadership, in whatever shape or form it comes, is key and can make a difference,” Stillhart said.

Some witnesses raised concerns about the administration’s proposed cuts to foreign aid in the 2018 fiscal budget. Eric Schwartz, the president of Refugees International, said such cuts would “severely compromise U.S. capacity to address food security risks.” He called on members of Congress to make budget allocations based on need.

Schwartz also urged the administration to appoint a new special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, particularly in the absence of other key appointments on Africa at the State Department.

“There is no apparent strategy from the administration on how to address this [situation in South Sudan], no indication that this is an important political issue for the administration,” Schwartz said. “As long as this is the case, the prospect of a political solution is negligible.”

Both Beasley and Forsyth expressed confidence in their organizations’ and others’ abilities to address humanitarian crises if they receive the necessary funding and some of the underlying conflicts are addressed politically.

“In all of these situations, be it in Yemen or in others, we need better cooperation from host countries and others affected by crisis,” Nims said.

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    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.